“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.”
Hiking in Hawaii is one of the joys of living here. There are hundreds of miles of trails leading to natural beauty unique to the Islands of Aloha, but despite the fact we’re on an island, it’s surprisingly easy to get lost. Whoever is leading the hike has to know where they’re going, and maintain perspective during the journey. It’s an excellent metaphor for leadership because leadership, especially at senior levels, is all about maintaining perspective.
We started out on a short hike to find Maunawili Falls. I was certain where we were going, and as we started up the trail confident in my navigational skills. After hiking for almost an hour for what should have been a 30 minute trip we discovered we were on the wrong trail. We were on the Maunawili Trail all right, but not the Maunawili Falls trail. Turning around after an hour of “it must be just ahead” with a couple of disappointed women who had come to see a Hawaiian waterfall was not my finest hour.
Anyone can react to current events, but true leadership requires thinking beyond the now into the future. Simply following the crowd or staying on the trail isn’t leadership, and despite the “trust your gut” advice dispensed by some neither is “just knowing” where the trail is headed. Leadership is picking the right trail in the first place, and that requires some perspective. When hiking, perspective comes from thorough planning and following progress on a map. When leading, the same is true.
Like a trail map and a pre-hike plan, strategic plans and metrics are important tools. But those sorts of tools are only good when you have matched the trail with the map. Put more simply, you can plan your way to the wrong destination very effectively. A leader’s most important job is knowing the destination and getting on the right trail. Only then are strat plans and performance measures useful. In my case, I knew the destination but was a bit fuzzy on the execution. We had supplies, a route, and a destination in mind. What I failed to do was be sure the trail I selected led to the destination I wanted. I lacked perspective.
A well planned hike then starts with the destination in mind, and an overview of the entire route from beginning to end, knowing what to expect on the trail, anticipating danger areas, and planning for places to stop along the way. So it is with leading people. People expect leaders to know where they’re going, and have planned for problems along the way. A leader who sketches out a grandiose vision, sells that vision with compelling oratory, but then expects everything to go swimmingly simply because he said so is not leading, they’re hoping. As we say often in the military, “hope is not a strategy.” The real leader, the one who has perspective, understands the place of inspiring people with words, but also has the ability to contextualize problems and anticipate road blocks. Things don’t usually “just happen” to these leaders, they play out according to plan. When things go awry, the leader with perspective can adjust quickly. Perspective is the key difference between the amateur caught in an endless loop of responding to crises, and the professional who takes it all in stride.
So how do leaders maintain perspective? First, leaders need to maintain a strategic overview of the situation they’re leading in, both people and things, and take those into account. Do this by maintaining contact with the people in the industry and the people in their organization. What is stressing the suppliers and customers? What is stressing the people? Second, study trends over the long term. What is the history of your product or service? Are your customers fickle or loyal? What outside regulation is on the horizon and what are competitors doing?
Leaders can’t control everything, but by maintaining perspective leaders can give their teams the best chance of success.
1. Write down the top five stressors on your stakeholders, suppliers, and your people.
2. Research the 10-, 20-, and 30-year trends in your business.
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